Home Work

The effects of remote work on collaborationIllustration of a disconnected team shown using several bulls-eye targets. In two of the targets, the center is open, as if a window, and silhouetted figures look out. A man is climbing a ladder up to a woman in one of the center areas. Two people watch from a different bulls-eye's center area.

As companies debate the impact of large-scale remote work, a new study of over 61,000 Microsoft employees found that working from home causes workers to become more siloed in how they communicate, engage in fewer real-time conversations, and spend fewer hours in meetings.

The study, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour and co-authored by Assistant Professor David Holtz, suggests that a full-time remote workforce may have a harder time acquiring and sharing new information. If unaddressed, this could have implications for productivity and innovation among information workers down the road.

Holtz, who conducted the research as an MIT Sloan doctoral intern at Microsoft, and Microsoft colleagues Longqi Yang, Sonia Jaffe, Siddharth Suri, and seven others, compared the 18% of Microsoft employees who were already working from home with those who abruptly shifted online during the pandemic. Through statistical techniques, they teased out changes in behavior caused by remote work specifically rather than the upheaval of the pandemic itself.

The researchers had access to anonymized data on most of Microsoft’s U.S. employees. They also used aggregated weekly summaries of the amount of time workers spent in scheduled and unscheduled meetings and calls, the number of emails and instant messages they sent, and the length of their workweeks, as well as monthly summaries of workers’ collaboration networks.

The time people spent in meetings decreased by about 5% though unscheduled meeting time increased slightly. Holtz also analyzed how collaboration patterns are affected by an individual and by one’s collaborators working remotely. Both, he found, are important.

“That your colleagues’ remote work status affects your own work habits has major implications for companies considering hybrid or mixed-mode work policies,” he says. For example, having one’s collaborators in the office together improves communication and information flow for those in and out of the office. “It’s important to be thoughtful about how these policies are implemented.”